'Gun Control' Clouds
Juvenile Crime Excess

Liberals in Congress are in such a headlong rush to enact gun controls that they are on the verge of signing off on a draconian juvenile crime bill that would allow children as young as 13 to be locked up in prison with adults.

The Senate on May 20 passed the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 by a bipartisan vote of 73-25. The bill had some weak gun control provisions -- requirements of safety locks, background checks for gun buyers at gun shows and pawnshops and restrictions on ammunition-clip imports.

Even those relatively tepid measures were watered down in the House with substitute HR 2037, sponsored by Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Bill McCollum, R-Fla. But the House bill ups the ante on juvenile crime, sending more of it to already overcrowded federal courts and prisons and spending three quarters of new appropriations on more punishment rather than prevention or rehabilitation. Call the Capitol switchboard, 202-224-3121, and urge your representative to oppose it, gun control or no. If the House already has voted, urge your senators to oppose the bill when it comes back to them.

While the media focused on the gun control debate, there was little notice of the other mischief the bill does:

* Creates a new federal death penalty provision, dealing with violence committed by animal rights activists.

* Authorizes prayer on school grounds in memorial services for slain students or faculty, and bars those who successfully challenge the use of prayer in a public space from collecting the attorney fees that are due them.

* Requires states that release criminals from prison to pay the costs of incarceration in other states where the ex-con commits a new crime.

* Prohibits recruitment for membership in street gangs, and enhances penalties for gang members who are convicted of crimes. (Sound good? Well, consider that the U.S. Attorney gets to decide what a "gang" is.)

* Requires federal agencies to consider whether "wanton and gratuitous violence'' might be contained in films and television programs produced with government assistance. That sets up censorship by bureaucrats.

* Eliminates the current requirement that states address disproportionate confinement of juveniles from minority groups.

Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and Paul Wellstone of Minnesota were the only Democratic senators with the courage and/or good sense to oppose the juvenile crime bill. "Those who thought it was a vehicle for gun control or censuring Hollywood in both cases got away from what the serious issue is, which is how we help prevent juveniles from getting off on the wrong track,'' Feingold said.

Among other things, the House bill would remove the discretion of whether children are tried as juveniles from judges, who at least are supposed to be impartial. Prosecutors would make that decision.

The Senate bill would allow children as young as 14 to be tried as adults. The House bill replies, "Hey, make it 13."

In Florida, a state that gives its prosecutors wide discretion to try juveniles as adults, the American Civil Liberties Union noted that a state prosecutor recently charged as an adult a mentally disabled 15-year-old boy who stole $2 from a special ed classmate for food. The boy was charged with strong-arm robbery, which is punishable by 15 years in prison, and he spent four weeks in an adult jail before he was freed on $5,000 bail awaiting trial. That's the sort of discretion you get from publicity-hungry prosecutors. Judicial oversight is a much-needed check on them.

It is worth noting that, congressional rhetoric notwithstanding, juvenile crime has been on the decline the past few years. According to the Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice, between 1995 and 1997 there was a 21.3% decrease in the number of arrests of persons under the age of 18.

The House bill also includes mandatory sentencing requirements for juveniles -- the same sentencing requirements against which federal judges have protested.

All this comes 25 years after Congress passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to protect America's children after studies in the early 1970's found that children, who were kept in adult jails for crimes as trivial as running away or shoplifting, often were subject to rape, sodomy, and assault by both inmates and prison staff.

Rachel King, an ACLU legislative counsel, said the bill would allow 13-year-olds to be funneled into the federal adult criminal system, but it provides no guarantee that they will be protected from adult criminals in prison.

"Handing prosecutors the power to arbitrarily decide to send a 13-year-old through the adult system will do nothing to prevent crime," said King. "It will only bring us closer to a 'Wild West' system of justice, where the prosecutors' whims are the law of the land."

The legislation would also enable schools, employers and others to view juvenile crime records. "These records are closed now so rehabilitated children are not punished for crimes like shoplifting for the rest of their lives," King said. "This legislation makes it impossible for children to put their pasts behind them and become productive members of society."

"By blocking any ability for children to reform themselves, the bill would inevitably result in more hardened career criminals," said Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU's Washington office. "Without any hope of rehabilitation, even kids who receive 20-year sentences may emerge into society as angry 33-year-old adults with no social skills, education or prospects and more likely to commit another crime."

But hey, at least Congress will have passed a bill cracking down on juveniles in the wake of the Littleton, Colo., massacre. They'll make it a little more difficult to get a gun. (It will still be illegal for a teenager to get one.) But they won't stop future Dylans and Erics from stealing their parents' guns and shooting up their middle-class schools. They'll just send more black, Hispanic and working-class white kids to hard-core prison instead of juvenile rehabilitation.

We're glad the Kosovars can return to their homeland, from which they were so brutally ejected this past spring. We just wish President Clinton had not trashed our Constitution to help them out.

We believe the President violated the 1973 War Powers Act, if not Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution, which states, "Congress shall have power to ... declare war ..."

Air strikes against Yugoslavia began on March 24. The House of Representatives refused to give approval for the air war, deadlocking 213 to 213 on April 28. May 25 marked 60 days after President Clinton gave Congress official notice -- the deadline to "terminate any use" of forces without explicit authorization, under the War Powers Act. Few news media even noticed. Bombing continued until June 10.

The U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign, which killed an estimated 5,000 soldiers and civilians and wounded an estimated 10,000, may have been for a good cause, but it was the international equivalent of vigilante justice.

Now Clinton has committed U.S. forces and resources to what is expected to be a lengthy and expensive occupation of Kosovo and rebuilding the infrastructure of the former Yugoslavia. Make no mistake: The intervention in the Balkans will end up costing the United States billions of dollars that will come at the expense of Social Security, Medicare, public education and other social programs that already are embattled. Multinational corporations are coveting the tens of billions of dollars worth of contracts to rebuild Kosovo and to replace the depleted stocks of cruise missiles and "smart bombs" that rained on Yugoslavia. Those contractors will be the only winners of this undeclared and unconsecrated war. Congress will get the bill eventually. And we will be expected to pay it. -- Jim Cullen

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